Saturday 9 July 2016

Sydney Film Festival (25) - Max Berghouse reviews A MONSTER WITH A THOUSAND HEADS and THE ENDLESS RIVER

A Monster with a Thousand Heads (Rodrigo Pia, Mexico, 2015, 74 minutes)
To get the plot elements out of the way in the strikingly capable film A Monster with a Thousand Heads, a suburban Mexico City housewife, Sonia, tending her grievously ailing husband, Guillermo, in the terminal and extremely painful stage of cancer, finds that a potentially life-saving treatment has been denied by their private health insurer. She goes to the insurer to seek a change in the judgement about the treatment but the assessor, himself a medical doctor, gives her the runaround. This sets off a series of incidents as Sonia refuses to accept this and the plot moves from the insurer, onwards and upwards to the homes and clubs of the wealthy, until the final denouement.

Just as a "thriller", this film is exceptionally assured. The twists and turns of the plot, as they increase apparently logically in drama, all mesh perfectly. A film in which any gaps in logic only become apparent when you are on your way home on the bus! This is particularly aided by the actress Jana Raluy who plays Sonia. Determined but by no means in charge of either herself or events Sonia is played perfectly -  a role of someone not prepared to give up in the face of apparently hopeless odds. This is completely Rahry’s film.

But the attractions of the film are not simply as a thriller. It is much more subtle than that and the aspects of the film I am now about to discuss, do a great deal to intensify and underline the film as thriller. Firstly, each physical setting moves from the "ordinary" – the apartment of a middle-class couple, towards more and more luxurious places, offices, houses, and clubs. Each further and more opulent place represents a separation by those who inhabit them, from common folk. Secondly, characters are introduced as behaving in ways we would not normally expect. The medical practitioner who is the assessor for the insurance company is completely indifferent to the travails of Sonia's husband. The husband is just another statistic for whom underwriting a further course of treatment is unwarranted. On the other hand the doctor's wife, admittedly under threat from Sonia, instinctively understands the pressures that she, Sonia, is under, and gives away a great deal of information. Incidentally, Sonia is joined in this quest by her teenage son Dario, who is overwhelmingly passive but conveys a portrait of a young man loyal to his mother, even though he is in a position he very much does not want to be in.

The plot "hook" relates to a decision by an insurance company which is manifestly made for purposes of the bottom line and so little emphasis is placed on this decision, that it must be a frequent occurrence. One hears so much anecdotal information about private health insurance companies in the United States, behaving in the same way, and Mexico is right next door, that the complete absence of comment by anyone as to systematic abuse, actually renders this insurance system more awful.

Superbly photographed from beginning to end,  the most mesmerising scene was at the very beginning, the screen utterly dark and only gradually becoming perceptible as the room in which Sonia's husband is, if not dying, grievously unwell. Some reviewers have commented that this is his or their bedroom but we capture it from next to the bed looking towards the doorway and the doors appear to have glass panes and the room appears to lead off from the main family sitting room. I suspect in fact it is an enclosed verandah or something similar which has been turned into a makeshift bedroom because of the medical needs of the husband. Terminally sick people who are at home generally require much more space for medications and possibly medical equipment. It is this relatively "public" aspect to death which is fairly distinctively Mexican, although possibly also Latin American. It fuses a fairly rigid Catholic Christianity with pre-existing Indian/Aztec beliefs as to the importance of death. In Anglo-Saxon countries, the dead and the dying are normally hidden away, but in this film, the very public display of suffering (the husband is clearly in great pain) is a motivator for the actions Sonia takes. This is both superbly subtle and believable.

So as well as thriller, this is a very direct commentary on the medical industry of some, indeed probably a lot of countries. A first-rate production.

The Endless River  (Oliver Hermanus, South Africa, 2016)
Subjected to some relatively stiff adverse reviews, The Endless River the third film of South African director Oliver Hermanus, is, while not worthy of overwhelming plaudits,  a very satisfactory film.

It is a textbook example of modern "film school" production. The fundamental aim of film schools is to teach that in directing a film, "show, don't tell". This has resulted in an exceptionally taut script, one that has been so pared down as to teeter on the point of incomprehensibility on some critical points and which generally limits, in the interaction of the characters, any chance of development of complexity. The film is also visually structured in three chapters, each named after one of the main characters. Presumably this is to make clear that the filmmaker is aware that Aristotle wrote about plays in three acts. Each chapter is visually indicated by a surtitle, a device I particularly dislike and moreover none of the chapters really concentrates on the person mentioned, to the relative exclusion of the others. The film maintains its linear flow and the chapter titles are irrelevant. Really quite a contrivance!

At the beginning, outside prison gates, so often used in thrillers, waitress Tiny meets her husband Percy, released from four years "in stir" for gang-related activity. Perhaps I missed something or perhaps whatever it was that Percy did was more clearly imprinted on the minds of South African people, the primary audience for this film. I believe that this want of immediate comprehension occurs relatively regularly throughout the film, and although I am quite forgiving of this in non-English language films, I am less inclined to do so in a film in English. The couple return to the township of Endless River, called in Afrikaans, Riviersonderend, where she works in a diner as a waitress. What Percy did previously for work is probably nothing and he shows no intention of earning an honest dollar now that he is out. Painted in a uniformly negative way, he is the subject of continuing criticism from his widowed mother Mona, sharp and tart, who keeps her concrete block home absolutely spick and span, and goes to church every Sunday! Percy is little more than a construct of pure awfulness and evil, to help the plot along.

Tiny has invested much hope in the marriage continuing happily but this clearly is not going to be the case as Percy resumes his contacts with a gang in the township. At the diner waitress Tiny meets Gilles, who does something as work which is not made clear but his residence at an isolated farmhouse with his stunningly beautiful wife and two pre-teen boys is. The crux of this part of the film is the absolutely brutal murder of all three family members just mentioned and including the extraordinary graphic rape of the wife. Portrayed completely wordlessly and covered by the music alone, I thought it was handled a little excessively, just to convey a sense of "this is how it can be done". Of course the brutal death of young children is pretty much a taboo in cinema, or it has been until recently. One wonders just how a South African audience would view such realism in so far as it conveys what really goes on, apparently to some considerable extent, in South Africa. Gilles who seems to spend rather too much time in the diner, chatting amiably with Tiny, completely goes to pieces and a relationship of sorts develops. Each of them is increasingly "alone".

Gilles is played by the French actor Nicolas Duvauchelle, brought in no doubt to broaden the appeal of the film, and not entirely appropriate in my view. In real life he brings into the film his heavily inked up body which conveys the impression, at least to a person of my age, of someone not to be entirely trusted. The sensitivity and general inwardness he is meant to convey, especially in the second half of the film is rather undercut by the ugliness of the tats. His rage and despair is certainly not lessened by the opinion of the local police captain (Darren Klefkens in a brutally honest and blunt performance), that this is a gang-related murder and such murders presage a gang initiation. That such murders on isolated farms are apparently and regrettably common in South Africa is presumably immediately comprehensible to South African audiences but does require somewhat more cerebral activity on the part of other viewers.

Tiny and Gilles commence a first tepid but soon torrid relationship, which despite the fact that they are both physically attractive people, really is not convincing. The film now veers as the couple, under the pressures of their relationship, both escape. Well, if not escape, they travel around the country and we get a very varied picture of South Africa. Viewers from the western world, in my view, take geography from their understanding of America. New York for example is a city but it can be also THE city in which a plot takes place. So every other foreign city at least has the potential to be "the city" but with the additional possibility of treating it as a place where the viewer is essentially a tourist. This provides opportunity for showing superfluous, even if colourful detail. So there are lots of shots, quite beautifully composed with the aid of the director of photography Chris Lotz. But the reality is that they are no different from the as it were "neutral" similar shots we understand from America. The great Plains of midwest America are pretty much the same as the Pampas in Argentina and pretty much the same as the grasslands in South Africa. They are just places and the attempt on the film to convey something novel or unique in the vistas traversed by Gilles and Tiny just don't work.

The arrangement between the two in my view is never convincing and the travel around the country becomes more and more absurd because we have no idea why they are going, and what, if anything they are in search of: escape, possibly or healing, who knows? Hopefully they find out before the money runs out. But my muted judgement about this has to be tempered by the fact that I was more enthusiastic about the first half of the film which seemed to be shaping up as an investigative murder thriller. Instead the director drops this for what appears to be a fairly soppy romance with a lot of touristy backdrops.

Apart from the performances already mentioned, Crystal-Roberts Donna (Tiny) and Denise Newman (Mona) are equally effective. Camera work, while it does not do much to advance the storyline, remains very beautiful.

This may seem like a very negative review but there is no question that Oliver Hermanus is an important and serious filmmaker. The film held my interest very strongly for the first half, began seeping away thereafter and ultimately declined precipitously towards the end.

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